Bucknell University's pride of place will be showcased Nov. 8, when the Campus Theatre in downtown Lewisburg premieres a pair of documentaries focusing on the neighboring Susquehanna River. Produced in conjunction with local PBS affiliate WVIA-TV, the films draw upon the expertise of Bucknell faculty and students, and present the river from two new perspectives as part of the University's ongoing Stories of the Susquehanna Valley environmental humanities project.
The Coopers and Conservation at the Headwaters of the Susquehanna, a student-produced documentary advised by Professor Alf Siewers, English, examines the literary and conservation legacy of 19th-century authors James Fenimore Cooper and his daughter, Susan Fenimore Cooper. Key figures in American nature writing, the Coopers' work helped establish an early ethic of environmental stewardship at the river's headwaters in Cooperstown, N.Y.
"The Coopers wrote extensively about the need to conserve the area, which inspired civic leaders there to develop conservation plans that today are considered a role model for the Susquehanna watershed," said Siewers, who directed the interdisciplinary team of about a dozen students that produced the documentary.
A Student-directed Effort
Sam Lauer '13, M'18, English-literary studies, became fascinated with the Coopers' "ecocritical" fiction while working on an independent study project with Siewers as an undergraduate. "The message of the documentary is really powerful," she said. "The Cooper family provided a sustainable environmental ethic in their writings and actions that people can tap into, and in Cooperstown today, it's easy to see how effective that was."
From the beginning of the project in 2015, the students handled all aspects of production, including writing, filming and editing. Almost none had video experience, so they relied heavily on the expertise of Siewers and Brianna Derr, a digital pedagogy and scholarship specialist in Bertrand Library, to teach them how to interview, shoot B-roll, and use music and narrative.
"It was a massive learning curve," said John LaLoggia '18, psychology and political science, who noted that the technical challenge of making the film was compounded by the rotating roster of students over the duration of production. "Over time, our organizational skills and our vision became clearer and much more productive."
Learning how to communicate a complex topic in an interesting way that tells a story that matters has been an invaluable experience, said LaLoggia, who undertook the project as part of his Presidential Fellowship and who hopes to work in public policy. "It's very marketable that I can work with information to write a storyboard, create direction, shoot and edit, and work as part of a team."
Phil Amarante '18, a veteran of group projects in his biomedical engineering (BME) major, found that the keys to successful collaboration are consistent across disciplines: passionate people, good communication and productive meetings with clear plans for follow-through. "The documentation methods I learned in BME helped with video production, and vice versa," he said.
The documentary, which is part of Stories of the Susquehanna Valley (SSV), an interdisciplinary multimedia project launched by the University in 2010, is the second in a series of three student-produced films. The first, 2016's Utopian Dreams, focused on two 18th-century river communities and their diverging visions of society. Students recently began filming the third documentary, Churches of Coal Country, which will examine Slavic immigrant communities in nearby Mount Carmel, Pa.
Amarante, who worked on Utopian Dreams as a student in the Environmental Residential College and attended its premiere at the Campus, said he looks forward to watching Coopers on the big screen. "Seeing your work at the Campus and answering questions from the audience is so rewarding," he said.
Peoples of the Susquehanna
A second documentary, produced by WVIA with funding from Bucknell and participation of faculty, will also make its Campus Theatre debut Nov. 8. Peoples of the Susquehanna examines the history, culture and traditions of the Native Americans of the river watershed, including the Eastern Woodlands, the Susquehannocks, the Lenni Lenape and the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, as well as tribes dating from 1,000 years ago.
Professor Katherine Faull, comparative humanities and German studies, was interviewed for the program. An expert in the history of Moravian and Native American settlements along the river, she hopes the film will help viewers see past the usual stereotyping of the region's Native American population.
"We wanted to tell the story of native peoples as agents of history, rather than victims of history, along the Susquehanna River," Faull explained. "The idea that there are no Native Americans in Pennsylvania, which the state has promulgated since the 18th century, is not true. There are remnant peoples, as they're called — the Delaware, the Lenape and the Haudenosaunee — and it's time that their version of the history of the river was made available."
The idea for the documentary stemmed from a filmmaking grant application to the National Endowment for the Humanities that Faull co-wrote with Siewers in conjunction with work they'd done for the National Parks Service toward the designation of the Susquehanna River as a National Historic Trail. Although they didn't get the grant, they did receive financial backing through Bucknell's President's Fund to support production of a film with WVIA. Faull and Siewers traveled to historic sites up and down the river with the film crew, as did Sid Jamieson, a retired Bucknell lacrosse coach. Jamieson, who is Native American, played a key role in facilitating conversations with regional tribes.
A Multifaceted Storytelling Approach
Peoples of the Susquehanna Valley and the trio of student-produced documentaries grew out of SSV, which also includes a series of books published by Bucknell University Press. The first book in the series, Native Americans of the Susquehanna Valley, served as a source for Peoples. The third main component of SSV is a series of digital mapping projects that Faull and Siewers call a "digital atlas" to interpret the natural history and ecology of the region.
"We hope to spin off the three student documentaries into 'story maps,' and we'd really like to build up a digital educational resource for area schools," Siewers said. "Through SSV, we want to make regional history more accessible to the general public — not just to tell them about the region, but also to give them a voice in telling the story of their region. Our work with WVIA is a great example of that."
The public is invited to attend the free Nov. 8 screening of the films at the Campus Theatre, which begins at 7 p.m. Peoples of the Susquehanna will be broadcast on WVIA Nov. 16 at 8 p.m.